“Here’s my rhythm: Either I am talking or they are laughing. You would’ve had to make an appointment to heckle me.”
“I have always thought that the absence of god liberated us from an unbearable weight. But more than once, I have missed the idea of divine mercy when entering or leaving a hospital. Filled with seats, corridors, hierarchies and ceremonies of hope, silent on their upper floors, hospitals are the closest thing to a cathedral in which we unbelievers may tread.”
“Learn to live on air… Avoid all messy and needy people including family; they threaten your work… Once you’ve truly begun, slow down. The difference between publishing two good books and forty mediocre books is terribly large.”
John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead, and Geoff Dyer, author of Zona, recently met for a discussion at 192 Books in New York City. Among the topics covered: Burning Man, Axl Rose, writerly influence, and why Geoff Dyer hates the Coen brothers.
Sullivan: Can I ask you about a remark you made in the book about the Coen brothers? Which did not seem flip—you accuse yourself of being flip with the Wizard of Oz thing, but you describe their films as “witless.” I’ve heard a lot of Americans criticize the Coen brothers, but it’s usually the opposite criticism that’s made—that they’re too clever by half, that it’s all wit and no heart. And so I just was hoping you could expand on that.
Dyer: Oh, with great pleasure! [Laughter]
There was an occasion when The Threepenny Review was hosting this symposium on Almodóvar, and I was really pleased to contribute to that because I really hate his films, but then I duly wrote something and they didn’t publish it because they thought it was too abusive. And I’ve been waiting for a symposium where I can really pitch into the Coen brothers, and it’s really quite simple, I think.
Here is the fact of the matter: I have a G.S.o.H. I really do have a Great Sense of Humor. We’re not going to debate it—just accept it. [Laughter] And when I’m in a Coen brothers film, in a cinema, I’m surrounded by all of these people laughing their heads off, and I’m sitting there stone-faced. And the reason I’m not laughing and they are is because I have a sense of humor and they don’t. What one realizes is that even people without a sense of humor want to have a laugh. Because it’s fun to laugh, of course. I always come back to this one bit. You know how sometimes you can see someone make a gesture in a novel, and it’s some kind of insight into their soul? It’s that sequence in Fargo, that bit where the guy says, “I need unguent.” Do you remember that bit? That is humor for people with no sense of humor. And after that I just despised them with every fiber of my being. And I even thought that the stoner film, what’s that one called? [An audience member suggests The Big Lebowski] Yes, even that is—well, I can see that we all love Jeff Bridges and all this kind of stuff—but that became tiresome so quickly. Then just the pointlessness of many of the films. I’m a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy. I think Cormac McCarthy is a great genius, but I thought that book No Country for Old Men was basically a kid’s book, really, because it had such childish attitudes toward violence. So, weirdly, that seemed to me to be a successful film, in a way. It seems to me that they are childish filmmakers. And then the remake of True Grit. It just seemed entirely pointless to me.
Sullivan: What about Raising Arizona, though?
Dyer: Oh, that is just unspeakably… [Laughter]
Sullivan: Satisfyingly shocking, is what you’re saying? But he’s talking about the pajamas. When the cops are asking the father who has had his child kidnapped, and they’re asking him to describe the pajamas and he says, “I don’t know, they had Yodas and shit on them. They were pajamas.” Come on, that’s witty.
Dyer: I don’t know, it might be. I can’t remember Raising Arizona at all, this is the problem. All I can remember is the vehemence of my own aversion to it.
Sullivan: That’s what makes us essayists. Your reaction dwarfs the reality, and so we write about the reactions.
When I was a child I read books. My reading was not indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and hard. I made vocabulary lists.
Surprising as it may seem, I had friends, some of whom read more than I did. I knew a good deal about Constantinople and the Cromwell revolution and chivalry. There was little here that was relevant to my experience, but the shelves of northern Idaho groaned with just the sort of old dull books I craved, so I cannot have been alone in these enthusiasms.
Relevance was precisely not an issue for me. I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture, and beyond that the world where I was I found entirely sufficient.”
“Spinoza wrote his Ethics in Latin, a language nobody spoke anymore, using a severely logical method of argument. The last thing he wanted was to make his presence felt, or to write about himself. The way he wrote his Ethics was rather like the way he lived, determined to remain obscure, uncompromised by a recognizable identity in the public world. The impersonal purity of his Ethics, then, couldn’t have been more self-expressive. The book wasn’t published in his lifetime, partly because it would have been recognized as his book. In his obscurity, he was too well known.”
“Montaigne said of his essays, “I have no more made this book than this book has made me.” I think he means his writing revealed him to himself, and the revelations weren’t always consciously intended. Again and again in his essays he seems to discover himself inadvertently, which is to say only that your radically personal identity, with or without your consent, is made evident in your writing. Like a fingerprint.”
“I will now—and not without apprehension—go against the advice of Leonard Michaels and talk about the writer who influences me more than any other: Leonard Michaels.
“In 1999, I was a graduate student in film at the University of Southern California, pursuing with futility a career in Hollywood. I’d ended up there as a strange concession to my parents, having convinced them and myself that cinema—with its endless credit roll of technical specialties—would offer the professional security they desired and creative gratification I sought. Writing—what I really wanted to do—appeared by comparison to be amorphous and fantastically improbable. But that winter, having fulfilled all of my course requirements, I enrolled in a creative writing class offered by the university. One day, the instructor suggested that I look up the work of a writer he thought I might like. That same afternoon I descended into the basement of USC’s Doheny Library looking for a collection of stories called I Would Have Saved Them If I Could by Leonard Michaels. In contrast to the library’s grand, sunlit exterior, its basement was like a bomb shelter, with metal stacks painted a dismal military gray-green. Filed on a low shelf, I found a selection of titles by Leonard Michaels, though not the book I was looking for. Arbitrarily, I opened one called Shuffle and read the first line. It went like this: ‘Sobbing like a child, he phoned his wife at her lover’s apartment.’ Instantly, I was drawn in. Through the thicket of conflicting words—child, wife, lover’s apartment—I saw the husband in his animal misery set against the cool urbanity of the wife and her lover. Rereading the line now I see them again, as I’ve seen them on countless other rereadings. This one line, dramatic and succinct, epitomizes much of what I came to admire about Michaels’ writing. There is humor, pathos, and an appreciation for the absurdity to be found in everyday life. There is also the invocation of the subject that fuels much of Michaels’ work, which he once defined as ‘the way men and women seem unable to live with and without each other.’ Turning pages, I stayed in the cavernous Doheny stacks for a long time, unwilling to stop reading even long enough to go upstairs and check the book out. It was the most powerful reading experience I’d ever had. I felt as if I’d found a writer who had managed to express the world the way I saw it. The effect was both exhilarating and humbling.”